Katherine Faw Morris
208 pages (e-book)
If you’ve heard of this new, debut novel, chances are you’ve heard words like “gritty,” “raw,” and “bare” attached to it. The style, the characters, and their realities are all no-holds-barred and in your face. You want candy-coating and flowers? Better look elsewhere.
Here’s how it opens (for a larger taste, you can read a longer excerpt here):
NIKKI IS ALL TO HELL. A boy jumps off the cliff in front of her. She peers over the edge, watching him go.
She clenches her toes. The river is druggy and yellow and slugs next to the bottom road for miles before suddenly whipping itself into rapids and dumping, white and frothy, over the edge of this cliff.
Nikki is Young God’s thirteen-year-old protagonist. She is impressionable and naïve, but she is also scrappy. She is ready to grow up, and she doesn’t want to appear inexperienced (“I ain’t a virgin,” she proclaims three times in the book) or youthful. In her experience, adults have sex and do drugs and act tough . . . and she’s ready to be just like them.
Her mom dies in the first few pages of the book, but Nikki doesn’t mourn her much. Her main objective is to avoid ending up back at the group home. She hangs out with her mom’s boyfriend for a while before stealing his car and driving out to her dad’s trailer.
Her dad, Coy Hawkins, recently got out of jail. He used to be the biggest coke dealer in the county, but now he’s just a crackhead who pimps out teenage girls (“This is my new thing. This is the future.”). Nikki is desperate to stay with Coy, to impress him, to earn his acceptance (if not love), and she will do anything to please him.
Actually, I think people tend to fetishize the rural South, and especially Appalachia, which is where I grew up. It’s either the mountain man, who knows the name of every plant and tree, and gathers wild roots in the woods, and goes home to his shack to do a little banjo-pickin’. Or it’s the raising-hell redneck with a couple of blood feuds. Or it’s the inbred Deliverance hillbilly, just lurking out there, looking for some ass to rape. I didn’t set out to rewrite all that. I just wrote my take on where I grew up, which is, of course, highly specific.
Young God’s Appalachia is real in the way the Ozarks are real in Winter’s Bone:
This is the country, and, like the rest of the book, it’s not particularly pretty:
AT THE OTHER END of the bottom road is the highway. It’s a long-looping highway. It’s really just a road that’s always tar. It leads to town. It takes forever to get there: twenty minutes. The whole time is dropping down but gradually. Nikki hardly feels it.
Along the way it’s mostly churches. The old ones are brick. The ones that got pissed off and split off from them are in storefronts. The ones that got pissed off and split off from them are in abandoned gas stations.
Very close to town there’s the twenty-four-hour Coffee House and the Food Lion and the big cemetery. Otherwise it’s trees. [. . .]
The highway spits them out to the southeast, into a different county. Nikki clutches the door handle as the pickup merges, rattling, onto an interstate. Tractor-trailers whip by. Headlights spot her eyes. It is six lanes, stick-straight. Nikki stares at everything. Sometimes she flinches. The road signs say CHARLOTTE.
“Where are we going?” she says.
Forty miles to Charlotte Coy Hawkins takes an exit. He exits onto a road that is all gas stations, drive-thrus, and motels. They march along either side, on and on. It is super bright. Coy Hawkins pulls into a motel’s lot. It’s a two-floor motel with a balcony. He parks around back and gets out and walks around front. Nikki squints, watching him go.
There’s a reason most of the hype about this book focuses on the style. It is short and choppy and something akin to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (but harsher, meaner, and purposely less polished). Here’s what Morris has to say about it:
I love language. I love beautiful metaphors. I just don’t feel the need to use them all the time. Minimalism is really attractive to me. Maximalism is not. It’s overeager. It’s like a lover who is too nice to you.
She took what was once a 100,000-word novel and hacked it down to its bare minimum (“I’m definitely a gut, instinctual writer, and I found that when I started cutting, it started feeling better. Then I started chopping and it felt great . . . . When I got down to the bone, I thought now this is something I can really fuck with, and then I cut some more.”). What was left is this short, stark, bold novel. Some pages contain only one sentence (“HEROIN IS THE MOST SECRET OF THEM ALL and needles are the most secret part and she has always loved secrets ever since she was a little girl.”), and all 208 pages can easily be read in an hour.
Is it engrossing? Yes.
Intended to shock? Certainly.
Pleasant? Hell, no.
Worth reading? Absolutely.
Who should NOT read it: my mother (i.e., people who are turned off by violence, self-destruction, misogyny, and abuse and who are drawn to “pretty” writing)
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley (winner of the 2012 Michael L. Printz and William C. Morris Awards)
- Ghost World by Daniel Clowes (1998 Ignatz Award Winner for Outstanding Graphic Novel; adapted into the movie of the same name that stars Scarlett Johansson, Thora Birch, and Steve Buscemi)